Au­thor gives voice to mime Marceau

San Francisco Chronicle - - ARTS & ENTERTAINM­ENT - By Brandon Yu Brandon Yu is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: byu@ sfchron­i­cle.com

In col­lege, Shawn Wen had an in­spi­ra­tional phase of mak­ing a sort of “art of the im­pos­si­ble,” hop­ing to fuse the world of mime and ra­dio. While con­duct­ing in­ter­views with mime artists, she also recorded their per­for­mances, in­tend­ing to find a way to put the silent acts onto the air­waves.

The idea de­vel­oped out of a rab­bit hole that Wen, now a writer and a pro­ducer at Youth Ra­dio, fell into af­ter learn­ing about Mar­cel Marceau, the world’s most fa­mous mime and sub­ject of her new book, “A Twenty Minute Si­lence Fol­lowed by Ap­plause.” Her in­tro­duc­tion to Marceau came from read­ing his obit­u­ary in the New York Times: icon of mime, renowned artist of the 20th cen­tury, Holo­caust sur­vivor, fighter in the French Re­sis­tance.

“It had me re­ally think­ing — what a way to be a per­son,” Wen says. “I think when you’re 20 you’re kind of ac­tively fig­ur­ing out what are ac­tive mod­els of adult­hood that (you) could take on. I was ac­tively think­ing at the time, how can you be a fully rounded per­son and also be an artist?”

Marceau him­self may have never had an an­swer. The mime artist be­came the sin­gu­lar face of his art form (his char­ac­ter Bip be­came the pro­to­type for how mimes are now con­cep­tu­al­ized) and toured world­wide in­ces­santly for decades, but also car­ried what Wen de­scribes as an “emo­tional im­pov­er­ish­ment,” partly char­ac­ter­ized by his per­pet­ual ab­sence from three exwives and four chil­dren.

Wen’s ra­dio idea never took, though it did pro­vide in­ten­sive re­search and early drafts for “A Twenty Minute Si­lence Fol­lowed by Ap­plause,” which chron­i­cles the life and work of Marceau in lyric es­say form.

Yet Wen’s work is in no way an ef­fort to re­vi­tal­ize a by­gone art form, nor does it serve to memo­ri­al­ize the pre­em­i­nent mime artist. “I think that peo­ple as­sume that I love mime or that I love Mar­cel Marceau, and I can un­der­stand why,” Wen says. “That’s a very easy as­sump­tion. I wrote a book about him. But that’s not re­ally the case.”

In­stead, Marceau was a case study for Wen’s per­sonal queries of self­hood — what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a good per­son, or an artist, or both. It was also an ex­er­cise in form and its lim­its and ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“I re­al­ized, as much as this is a book about mime, this ends up also be­ing about lan­guage,” Wen says. “It’s a book about what writ­ing can do or not do. What kind of truth can your body ex­press in ways that words will al­ways fail (to do)? But also, what can words do that your body can’t? The more that I wrote, the more I re­al­ized that words also have move­ment, words have tex­ture, words have a way of ges­tur­ing, much like my arms can.”

Wen read­ily ad­mits the am­bi­gu­ity of her de­scrip­tions, but such eva­sive­ness feels ap­pro­pri­ate for a book about some­one we come to un­der­stand im­pres­sion­is­ti­cally. Her lyric es­says ob­serve the life of Marceau from slanted an­gles: traces of per­for­mance scenes, brief ex­cerpts of his views drawn from in­ter­views, lists of Marceau’s gleam­ing col­lec­tions of worldly pos­ses­sions whose ac­cu­mu­la­tion re­flects an empti­ness.

The terse, of­ten poetic vi­gnettes leave a qual­ity of haunt­ed­ness ap­pro­pri­ate to some­one like Marceau.

“I do think he’s a tragic fig­ure,” Wen says. “I don’t have a ton of af­fec­tion for him, but I know a lot of men who are like him. I want him to be some­one who — you can ap­pre­ci­ate his great­ness, but you don’t know if you ex­actly like him. To me, he’s a juicy char­ac­ter.”

Jana Asen­bren­nerova

Shawn Wen wrote about mime Mar­cel Marceau af­ter read­ing his obit­u­ary.

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